Andrew in Steamland:
You Like Castlevania, Don’t You?
Recently, I had the uncomfortable realization that all the games to catch my attention this year are, in some way, remakes, re-releases, or reimaginings of games I’ve already played: Sonic Mania Plus, Genso Wanderer Reloaded, Mega Man X Legacy Collection, Spyro Reignited Trilogy, Touhou Makuka Sai, and Bloodstained. This observation was going to serve as a platform to rake the games industry over the coals for creative bankruptcy, but thinking about it in depth, I had to wonder if I’d trade those games for an equivalent number of new games. More to the point, what exactly qualifies as “new?” The big releases this year include more Far Cry, God of War, Red Dead Redemption, Dragon Ball, Monster Hunter, Tomb Raider, Mega Man, Call of Duty, and Fallout, so if all we have to look forward to (aside from indie studios) is endless iterations on franchises that are old enough to legally drink, why not play a dressed up version of something I’m already familiar with? At least I’ll go into it knowing it’s good. Sometimes old and reliable trumps new and exciting, which is a point that’s sure to come up again when I declare Sonic Mania Plus my GOTY 2018.
None of that tells you what Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon is, so I’ll make it simple: it’s Castlevania. Koji Igarashi (IGA), producer of the Castlevania series at its height, left Konami to, with the help of Inti Creates, make his own Kickstarter-funded series that looks suspiciously like Castlevania fell off the back of a truck and someone filed off the serial numbers. Fortunately for everyone involved, unlike the last time that happened, they remembered to make the game good.
Is that too much of a cheap shot? I’m only making fun of Mighty No. 9 because Curse of the Moon is the closest thing to a perfect game I’ve played this year. It’s an outstanding homage to pre-Symphony of the Night Castlevania that’s enjoyable even for those who feel no nostalgia for the NES. Instead of a rehash, it feels like a new entry in the series, like IGA’s team simply picked up where they left off. It’s been a long time coming; there hasn’t been a classic Castlevania title since 2007’s Dracula X Chronicles, itself a remake of Rondo of Blood, which released back in 1993. Maybe that’s why Curse of the Moon feels so fresh and original. There hasn’t been anything like it in over a decade, which is plenty of time for gaming to move on and pursue new trends, like roguelike metroidvanias, or not listing system requirements so you don’t know what noxious DRM they put in the game this time, or special editions of a game that don’t actually include the game. But I digress.
Point is, this is a throwback to early Castlevania, intended to whet appetites for the main entree. Due to not following Bloodstained’s Kickstarter campaign, I didn’t know about Curse of the Moon until it released and went into it with little in the way of expectations. As a result, I was blindsided by a game that’s not just good for a tie-in, but could easily stand on its own. If someone had told me that this was the game IGA was raising money for, I would be satisfied. That this is supposed to be a mere appetizer would be laughably arrogant coming from anyone else.
And before you accuse me of only enjoying Curse of the Moon out of nostalgia, I’d like to add that I didn’t play any pre-Playstation Castlevania games until the series was already in the process of being shipped off to pachinko purgatory with the rest of Konami’s classic lineup. My introduction to the series was Symphony of the Night, a game that has more than enough imitators these days. Sometimes an old game is good on its own merits, and not just because a bunch of nerds who haven’t played it in fifteen years have come to associate it with the carefree days of childhood. Sometimes I want to play a game like Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse because a well-designed game is satisfying regardless of when it was made, and because nobody makes games like that anymore. And sometimes I feel like the much greater popularity of the metroidvania format is simply because it’s easy to pad out your game by locking half of it behind mobility upgrades that the player has to crisscross the map to find. Developers are even bringing procedural generation into the mix now, with Chasm using randomization to put together levels and generate items. While that’s interesting in theory, I don’t think it adds anything significant, and the contrast feels even starker when looking at Curse of the Moon, where it feels like every single tile was placed with great deliberation.
Level design was one of the parts I was concerned about, given the nature of Castlevania III, the game Curse of the Moon hews closest to. The pitfall of having multiple playable characters is that level design has to be broadened to accommodate their abilities. The original Castlevania was so challenging because of its tight level design tailored around a singular, simple set of rules. Curse of the Moon features four characters (five, if you count Ultimate Zangetsu), with their own mobility options and attacks. Inti Creates’ solution was to give every level branching paths so that any character can get to the end alone. Players who use every character can go wherever they want, while people who prefer one won’t be forced to switch and will be pressed to fully master their favorite’s abilities. This is something the game encourages by having special endings for clearing it with only the starting character, Zangetsu, as well as with less than a full party. At first, I was frustrated by how limited my options were with one character, especially given that characters each have their own health bar, effectively quartering my health. Going it alone forces players to learn how to dodge hazards and get by without upgrades, which ultimately gave me a greater appreciation for the way everything is put together.
Cleverly, the conceit of letting players choose not to recruit characters addresses one of the few common complaints about the game, which is that it’s too easy compared to classic Castlevania. Playing as Zangetsu alone brings the whole experience much more in line with the games that inspired Curse of the Moon. And I’m willing to forgive compromising on hardcore difficulty because it’s been 20 years. They can fine-tune it in the sequel; for now, I’m relieved that the game exists at all. Ease-of-use features, like a casual difficulty mode and the ability to revisit earlier stages for items the player might have missed, pretty clearly indicate the developers cared more about getting new players on board than being totally faithful to their inspiration, which is fine. If the game was absolutely, inseparably married to being Dracula’s Curse: Steam Edition, we wouldn’t have gotten wonderful insanity like a robot peacock that shoots lightning and rainbows.
Here’s where Inti Creates’ past work with Mega Man comes to the fore: the bosses in this game wouldn’t feel out of place in Mega Man Zero and one of them is Storm Eagle with a makeover. Not to be too dismissive of what’s on offer here: when a boss runs out of HP, it uses a desperation attack in an attempt to take the player with it, which gives each fight its own climax and makes boss rush mode more interesting. And that’s the sort of touch that makes Curse of the Moon worth playing for me. Capturing the feel of a classic game involves some degree of change, since part of what made those titles fun to begin with was discovering and learning them, an experience that isn’t the same on a second or third or twenty-sixth playthrough. Classic series made radical changes all the time (compare Simon’s Quest to the Castlevania games that preceded and followed it), and no matter how many ROM sites get browbeaten into shutting down by legal blustering, older games are always going to be available. So why not mess around and throw some different ideas into the mix?
Maybe I’m a hypocrite for not wanting to venture too far outside my comfort zone (see: the first paragraph of this article) while simultaneously expecting developers to meet my vague and contradictory expectations of innovation. On the other hand, before finishing this piece, I replayed Curse of the Moon from the beginning while chatting with a friend, and was pleased with myself for completing it in about 40 minutes and without a single death. I was able to glide through the stages like it was the most natural thing in the world, hardly even slowed down by sections that had given me a great deal of trouble when I was learning the game. That’s a good feeling, and one that’s all the better for having earned it. So I apparently can be pleased.